I am exhausted! I’ve just reached the end of a long road trip, and I am ready to sleep for a week (though with three kids, napping for just an hour would be a victory!). Of course, I didn’t ever leave home because my journey was the first draft of my next book, which I have at last handed in to my editor at Harper Teen this week.
So I’m feeling very proud of myself – who would ever think that I could write 80,000 words in the seven weeks since the kids went back to school? But then, I’m also rather ashamed of myself too – why did I have to? After all, I had done the difficult stuff back in the spring, hadn’t I, when I wrote the outline? I am a plotter by nature, and knew I had to create a detailed structure for the plot before I could even begin to write. My chapter breakdown ran to almost ten thousand words, and once my editor had approved it, she sent me on my merry way to write my book.
And I had the whole summer to write it. Except I got stuck. Even with my outline to guide me, I had no clue even how to start the first sentence. My outlines had always acted as a road map for whatever novel I was writing, giving me a clear starting point and ending point for each chapter, along with a suggestion of the route I could take between the two, but suddenly I couldn’t even get my engine started, let alone drive away on my journey. I found myself staring at the blank screen. And this went on for most of the summer.
Eventually I did give myself a kick in the pants, and got a few chapters written sometime in July, but my engine soon sputtered into silence again because I realized I was bored. And if these chapters were boring me to write, then what hope did the reader have?
So I went and moaned to my writer friend, Penny. “But the beginning’s all so boring. No one will want to read it.”
“So start somewhere else then, at a place that isn’t boring.” she replied.
She made it sound so easy. But I had an outline to follow, and I couldn’t just start somewhere that wasn’t the beginning. Could I?
It felt rebellious, ignoring my road map from the off, but I took the chance and I dumped all four chapters I had already written and I started again, this time from a point much further along the story. The difference was amazing, I could suddenly write again. I had to remember to fill in some background here and there so the reader would know why my character was doing what she was doing, but I quickly discovered that four whole chapters could quite easily distill down into four carefully placed paragraphs instead. I was so excited.
Of course, as with any road trip, there were more bumps to come. A few chapters later I was slowing down again. But this time I remembered Penny’s tip and I jumped forward to another part which I knew I would love to write (when the lovely love interest appears again) and I carried on from there. And it was all flowing nicely until I got to a section where I was trying to balance a major historical event with a character’s intense emotional reaction to it, and yet again I was forced to stop, terrified of the steep slope plunging away from me.
But I reminded myself that whatever I wrote now didn’t have to be RIGHT, it just had to be down on the page so I could revise it later – you can’t revise and perfect what you’ve never written, after all. So I let the handbrake off and allowed myself to coast down the hill for while, freewheeling until I felt like I had it under control again.
And before I knew it, I had reached my destination – the end of the manuscript – albeit by a much more scenic and circuitous route than I’d originally planned. Of course, I had to go and fill in the blank chapters I had jumped over, but they proved far easier to write looking back than they had been looking forward.
So, just to strangle the last breath from this road trip analogy, here are my:
Top Tips for Your First Draft Journey
- If your engine won’t even start, call a friend who might have jumping cables. Other writers can sometimes see what you can’t about your own project, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Jump-start your engine by skipping forward to a scene you are excited to write. You can always fill in the blanks later. Perhaps those blanks were hard to write for a reason – they don’t belong in your book at all.
- If you grind to a halt at the top of a scary slope, don’t be afraid to take your foot off the brake and freewheel for a while until you feel you’ve got it under control again.
- Just because you’ve got a detailed map – your chapter outline – don’t think you can’t follow a more scenic route to reach your destination. Go smell the flowers for a while.